Learning to coexist with gators

Gregory Skupien
Gregory Skupien

The first detailed account of the American alligator was written by Edward McIllhenny, son of Tabasco hot sauce inventor Edmund McIlhenny, in 1935. In the preface to his book “The Alligator’s Life History,” McIllhenny described the alligator as “a maligned and misunderstood reptile.” Despite all we’ve learned in the 81 years since the publication of McIlhenny’s book, the American alligator remains a much misunderstood species.

The tragedy at Disney World in Florida this summer reminds us that while alligator attacks are rare, they do occur. In the United States, there have been fewer than 30 alligator-caused fatalities reported since 1928. Most adverse encounters with alligators occur when an alligator shows up in an undesirable location. We’ve all seen reports of an alligator blocking traffic on a roadway, crossing a golf course, or showing up on a beach somewhere. While these encounters can be unnerving, it is important to note that these run-ins rarely lead to human injury.

Many negative human-alligator encounters occur because humans have encroached upon natural alligator habitats. During my graduate studies, I was interested in learning more about how alligators adapt to human development. I spent four years tracking the movements of large alligators on a developed island using wildlife telemetry, a tracking technique routinely used by biologists to remotely monitor the movements of wildlife species. I placed radio and GPS devices on the island’s largest gators and was able to record all of the places that they visited. I found that alligators frequently used human-made habitats such as culverts (the large drainage pipes underneath roadways) and storm water lagoons on golf courses.

In addition to tracking alligators, my colleagues and I recently completed a study examining the effectiveness of education programs on changing people’s attitudes towards alligators. We found that people who took part in an alligator education program were more likely to report that humans and alligators can safely coexist. Since alligators are so adaptable to living around humans, learning how to coexist with them will be critical to limiting the number of negative interactions between people and alligators in the future.

To learn more about the American alligator, stop by the Naturalist Center at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. We recently unveiled a new display highlighting the flora and fauna of North Carolina State Parks. Exhibit panels currently on display feature none other than the American alligator. To spot wild alligators visit Lake Waccamaw, Merchants Millpond or Carolina Beach State Parks. Just remember: never feed wild alligators and always view them from a safe distance.

Greg Skupien is Curator of the Naturalist Center at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences